New Jobs for Robots in Personal Healthcare

A growing number of hospitals and care facilities are utilizing robots to perform both simple and complex tasks, and recently there has been news about robots being developed for personal healthcare applications, as well. In addition to new product introductions, there are an increasing number of personal/family robots that were initially designed for entertainment purposes, but which are now morphing into personal healthcare robots. Given the fact that configuring and using robots for personal healthcare applications is a very delicate and challenging proposition, especially given the concerns about user confidence, privacy issues, price, and ease-of-use, the expansion of established and startup robotics companies into the personal healthcare market is a significant step.

Tractica believes that demand for personal healthcare robots is likely to increase significantly in the coming years, driven by various factors including an aging population, the rising cost of healthcare, trends in the industry toward more personalized medicine and treatment regimens, inconsistent availability of qualified caregivers, and overall advancements in digital healthcare technology. The key use cases for personal healthcare robots include preventive therapies, diagnosis, physical assistance, and rehabilitation treatment in both home and non-clinical settings, which can provide more independence to users, offer emergency support, provide valuable diagnostic data to professionals, and foster a sense of security among users.

As a system for preventive therapies and proactive diagnosis, the role of the robot is mostly geared toward data collected by monitoring, analysis, and diagnosis of key indicators like the user’s motion, physical coordination, and fitness level. The users are most likely to be those who at risk of developing a significant health issue in the near future, such as the elderly or patients with a history of health issues. The data collected by such robots include metrics related to daily living activities, medication, and factors that may help with the early identification of specific medical risks. Such data is of significant value to doctors and medical professionals, especially when the user is at home. For example, Mabu, the personal healthcare companion from Catalia Health, will help a particular group of patients take their medication, interact with them, and connect with their pharmacist when needed. Another example is Buddy from Bluefrog Robotics, which offers features for eldercare like fall detection, unusual inactivity detection, and medication reminders in addition to the more common features of a family robot.

As a system for rehabilitation treatment and assistance, the robot assists in the physical, mental, and social therapy of users who are undergoing medical treatment and require day-to-day assistance. At this time, the robots that assist with physical activities such as walking, supporting manipulation or handling of day-to-day objects, and prosthetics are mostly in the research phase. Very few robotic devices are commercially available that can be readily used at home. The i-Limb series upper limb prosthesis from Touch Bionics is one of those. All the available versions in the i-Limb series can be controlled by myoelectric signals, which are muscle signals in the user’s residual limb. The company also provides other methods to control the limb such as gesture control, app-based control, and proximity control.

Toyota has been working on its Partner Robot Family since 2007. The company’s Walk Assist Robot is currently in clinical trials and the commercial versions are expected to be released soon. Toyota’s Walk Assist Robot helps a user with typical activities in daily life, such as walking on level ground, climbing and descending stairs, sitting down and getting up from the chair, climbing hills and descending slopes, using a toilet, and so on. Toyota claims that the robot can help the user walk more naturally and securely.

Speaking of robots for mental, cognitive and social therapy, researchers in the field hope that such robots can help patients learn valuable social skills such as imitation, active communication, and mental focus in their interpersonal interactions. For example, Paro, an advanced interactive therapeutic robot developed by AIST, Japan, can stimulate patients with Alzheimer’s Disease and other cognitive disorders. Some believe that customizing these robots’ behavior is the next step to making them more personalized solutions for healthcare.

Personalized robotics for healthcare is indeed very challenging, but with well-defined use cases such as those referenced above, such devices could prove to be highly effective for the elderly and other patients who are more comfortable in their home environment. Fictional robots like Baymax from Disney’s Big Hero 6 might be a good example for many to investigate, a super cool robot that can interact with humans, scans for health issues, has assistive physical features, and monitors on a 24/7 basis like just an all-purpose healthcare companion with a gentle, soothing, reliable voice and lovable personality.

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